Staff Picks: Murderous Teens, Mechanical Cities, Message Boards


This Week’s Reading


The first thing—maybe the only thing—we all learn about art history is that standards of beauty change. The ideal body gets fatter or thinner, different body parts get emphasized or flattered away—and the fashions of the time serve this ideal. At least, that’s how we usually think. Recently I’ve gone back to Anne Hollander’s 1978 masterpiece Seeing Through Clothes, which turns that way of thinking on its head. When we look at a nude body, Hollander argues, we are always seeing the clothes that aren’t there, whether we know it or not. The big pregnant-looking belly on an early Renaissance Eve is meant to support the heavy woolen gathers of a gown. The “unaccountable hummocks of flesh” on a Rubens nude evoke the satin she doesn’t have on. Whether Hollander writes about dresses or men’s tailoring or classical drapery, she leads us, like no other historian I’ve read, into the erotic imagination of the past. Seeing Through Clothes blew my mind when I first read it twenty years ago, and now it’s keeping me up late all over again. —Lorin Stein

One day during Salvador Dalí’s first visit to New York City in 1934, he woke “at six in the morning … after a long dream involving eroticism and lions.” He was surprised by the insistence of the lions’ roars—the savage cries of his dreams, which were so different than what he expected in a “modern and mechanical” city. Reading this, I thought of the Surrealist master dreaming of great orange cats roaring in his ears. But the roars weren’t in his imagination: he and his wife, Gala, were staying near the Central Park Zoo, and he discovered at breakfast that the sounds were real. It’s amusing to read Dalí’s impressions of the city, which he gives in his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. During his stay, he hops from one cocktail party to another, drinks in a Harlem night club, attends a “surrealist ball,” visits an exhibition of his works, and does a fine bit of walking “all alone in the heart of New York.” Here’s his take on the city’s skyscrapers: “Each evening [they] assume the anthropomorphic shapes of multiple gigantic Millet’s Angeluses … motionless and ready to perform the sexual act and devour one another, like swarms of praying mantes before copulation.” Caitlin Love 


Before seeing Larry Clark’s Bully, I had never seen a film that made me understand how somebody could kill another person. I’d mostly seen tightly plotted murder films in which the motive was airtight and the moment of decision all but glossed over, and I thought that’s where the genre ended. Bully, though, is something different: it follows a group of shiftless teens who are dominated and manipulated by one of their peers. The film’s meandering and gratuitous opening—scene after scene of teen recklessness punctuated by extreme outbreaks of physical, sexual, and psychological violence—slowly gains coherence after one of the characters suggests murdering the friend who’s the source of their torment. Roger Ebert observed that Bully “has all the sadness and shabbiness, all the mess and cruelty and thoughtless stupidity of the real thing,” and that’s the power of it; Bully’s plot and style have few of the markers of a murder film, which leaves us just as surprised as the characters when the murder ultimately occurs. Clark’s great achievement is the subtlety with which he renders the group dynamic, showing how each member, by pretending to be prepared to kill, goads the others into doing something that none would be capable of alone. —Sylvie McNamara 

I love John Carpenter movies—not just at Halloween but all year long. The Thing is one of my favorites, partly for Kurt Russell and partly because, as Dave Tompkins wrote on this site, it replicates “the frailty of the human mind in conditions of paranoia and subzero isolation.” Put another way, “If you were a Thing, would you know?” That’s Carpenter himself, from a recent conversation in the Village Voice with the director and four of the film’s cast members. Apparently, some of the cast were obsessed with this question. David Clennon (he plays Palmer, the stoner mechanic) recalls, “We wasted hours and hours of rehearsal time discussing fucking metaphysics! … When you become the Thing—when the alien takes over your mind and body—do you know that you’ve become the Thing? Or do you just go on thinking that you are your old self?” The conversation includes some great nuggets on filming in extreme temperatures (Clennon again: “If I don’t drink today it’s because I drank enough then”), but I felt most pleased in reading their praise of old-school special effects, courtesy Rob Bottin: “We didn’t have to imagine some post-production [computer-generated] effects and then pretend to be shocked or mesmerized. Rob Bottin gave us all we needed to be well and truly freaked.” —Nicole Rudick

This photo captivated a message board for whole years. 

I’ve been making my way through D. G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe in the few moments when I don’t feel like I’m living in an Orwellian reality-TV hellscape. (Few and far between, these days.) Set in a humdrum near-future England, the novel tells of Katherine Mortenhoe, a prolific romance author—the term is apparently programmer in the future—who’s slowly dying of old age. But the problem of death has been solved in the future, so Mortenhoe’s impending passing attracts a lot of attention. Rod, a journalist who’s received ocular implants that enable TV producers to record everything they see, is tasked to document Mortenhoe’s final days, which become eerily scripted. Rod, whose part in the shifting narrative is told in first person, is torn between filming her without consent and actually caring for her. You’ll enjoy it if you’re a fan of shows such as Black Mirror and Westworld that explore human nature and technology in parallel. —Jeffery Gleaves

Ah, the wisdom of crowds. So tenacious, so monomaniacal, so adept at wasting time. The new episode of Reply All, a podcast about the Internet and how it fucks with people, tells the story of a message board whose many members spent years dissecting an ordinary photo from a shitty high school party. They identified everyone in it; found other photos from the same party; made detailed predictions about what would become of these kids; and went to great lengths to keep tabs on them as they grew up—all because it was just kinda funny. Then it got weird: the kids from the photos were aware of the message board all the while, and eventually they elected to make contact. “The whole time you were watching us, we were watching you,” they wrote, adding almost as an afterthought that the guy from the original photo had since died. I won’t spoil the rest except to say that it involves a strained encounter at a bar in suburban Pennsylvania, and that it’s a disturbing parable about collective obsession in the age of the search engine. —Dan Piepenbring